Children’s charity frontline workers warn families fear ‘going under’ during coronavirus outbreak

Monday 23 March 2020

Vulnerable families across the UK fear they won’t be able to stay afloat during the coronavirus crisis, a new investigation by Action for Children revealed today

  • Action for Children launches emergency appeal to help vulnerable families stay afloat.
  • Investigation with charity service workers on the frontline shows families fear they won’t be able to properly feed children and babies.
  • One mum says: “We’re literally living hand to mouth. I’m struggling mentally and trying not to panic, to hold the family together, but I’m also thinking ‘what next?’ A lot of parents are saying kids who are normally quite together have been upset and in tears.”

The new investigation by Action for Children coincides with the charity launching an emergency appeal to prevent desperate families from reaching breaking point. 

Nearly one in every three children (1) in the UK was living in poverty before the crisis hit. But the charity is warning this unprecedented health and economic crisis is now set to force even more families to choose between feeding their children and paying bills. 

Action for Children carried out telephone interviews with workers representing 60 (2) of its frontline services across the UK, including children’s centres, services for disabled children and young carers, as they struggle to support families in increasingly difficult conditions. 

  • Families reported being most worried about not being able to afford food, followed by electricity and gas, then nappies (3). Other concerns raised included access to baby formula and uncertainty over help paying the rent if they can’t work.
  • The vast majority (4) of frontline workers interviewed said they were already speaking to parents worried about having enough money to stay afloat during the outbreak.
  • Nearly two thirds (5) said they didn’t think the government was doing enough for children during the coronavirus outbreak.

Carol Iddon, deputy chief executive of Action for Children, said: “The coronavirus crisis has exploded into the lives of vulnerable children and families at a time when millions were already struggling to keep their heads above water – and now are terrified of going under.

“Action for Children’s frontline staff, who were running unofficial food banks to help those at risk of going hungry before the outbreak, are overwhelmed by the sheer desperation of frightened families who fear they can’t afford to keep children and babies warm and well fed. Some are even donating food from their own cupboards to help keep families from going under.

“Coronavirus has thrown all our lives, our communities and the UK into unprecedented crisis –families need to know they are not on their own. Our support workers will keep battling to help families come out the other side of this - but they need your help. We’re asking people to help a family hit by the coronavirus crisis and donate to Action for Children.”

Case study: Helen, 50, from Devon is a full-time carer for her seven-year-old, Sam, who is autistic. The family has just been managing to get by thanks to her husband’s earnings as a taxi driver, but the impact of coronavirus is already hitting their income hard.

“We’re literally living hand to mouth and when my husband said he’d only had a couple of driving jobs in a day, I didn’t know what to do. Our main worry is if it comes to the point where money runs out. What if we can’t put food on the table or how long before we can get Universal Credit? What if we get ill and are stuck in lockdown? Nobody has an answer.

“On top of that routine is essential with Sam’s autism – I’ve been worrying about things like what we’re going to tell him now we can’t afford chicken nuggets for tea. He loves school, but once they’ve closed for most kids he might have to attend a random school that has provision and that will be really unsettling. 

“I’m struggling mentally and trying not to panic, to hold the family together, but I’m also thinking ‘what next?’ Or wondering where I can find bread and milk. It’s hurting the children too - lot of parents are saying kids who are normally quite together have been upset and in tears.”

To support Action for Children’s emergency coronavirus appeal which will help families cover the cost of the basics, please visit, call 0300 123 2112 or text ‘CHILDREN’ to 70175 to donate £5.


Further quotes from Action for Children frontline workers

"Staff have started donating from their own cupboards because there are families they know won’t be able to manage. We’re worried about parents who have a disabled child or young person in family home, especially with autism as they are struggling to explain what’s happening to them. Kids who can’t understand why they aren’t going to school – it’s deeply unsettling for them."

"In a seaside rural town people are thinking a lot about zero-hour contracts – they’re in sectors that might struggle the most with childcare, job losses. We’re moving towards prioritising the most vulnerable first but some families have said they’d rather not have us visit because of coronavirus. We’ll be offering telephone support to families we’ve been working with for a while."

"We’re worried about a baby formula shortage but the biggest worry is long-term financial implications and families’ ability to sustain themselves. A mum we saw yesterday – she couldn’t pay any bills or afford food – any of the essentials. We could help but we don’t know for how much longer. Once families are remote the timeliness of the response is critical – to ensure children are keeping warm, having water to wash etc. It’s been such a significant shift in such a short space a time. We’re trying to be creative and available to as many people as possible."

"We need to know more about the government hardship money - there's been a delay in the messaging – there was an announcement from the PM about helping families but no-one's heard anything as yet how this is happening."

Media contact

Action for Children media team - 07802 806 679 / [email protected]


  1. 4.1 million children (30%) were living in poverty in the UK in 2017/18. These children were living in households with a relative low income (after housing costs). Department for Work and Pensions (2019). National Statistics: Households below average income: 1994/95 to 2017/18. Available at:
  2. Action for Children conducted telephone interviews with 29 service managers, representing 60 of the charity’s services from across the UK, between Wednesday 18 March and Friday 20 March.
  3. In answer to the question: Thinking about parents with financial worries, what are they most worried about having to afford/cut back on during the coronavirus outbreak? • Food • Nappies • Clothes and shoes • Electricity/Gas • - 22 said food (76%), 16 electric/gas (55%), 7 nappies (24%), 2 don't know (7%), 1 clothes (3%). Respondents were allowed to select as many options as applied
  4. 25 of 29 service managers (86%) answered ‘yes’ when asked if they were speaking to parents who are worried about having enough money to stay afloat during the coronavirus outbreak.
  5. In answer to the question: Do you feel the UK government is doing enough to support vulnerable children during the coronavirus outbreak? 18 replied no (62%), 7 yes (24%), 4 don't know / not answered (14%) - so 62% said no